While every country participated in the negotiation with Iran deserve to be venerated for the breakthrough, negotiators from the US and Iran are faced with implausible political realities in their countries to sell the deal. It appears as the US Congress is desperately seeking ways in the name of control to sabotage the deal. Even though millions around the world were pleasantly astonished with the conditions that were accepted by Iran, some Republicans have argued Iran has received too many concessions and accuse the White House of not consulting with Congress, especially if sanctions are involved.
Many Republicans had demanded lawmakers have a voice in the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1. But Obama and Kerry cautioned that the move could push Iran away from the negotiations.
“This deal is the right thing to do for the United States, for our allies in the region, and for world peace regardless of the nature of the Iranian regime,” President Obama told National Public Radio in an interview that impressed Iranian commentators with its level of detail on the contours of the final agreement.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is also reaching out to world leaders and his domestic opponents to secure a landmark accord that he hopes could help achieve the economic and political reforms he promised Iranians when he was elected. “We declare to you we are not negotiating with the US, the US Senate, the House of Representatives. The party we are negotiating with is called the P5+1 group,” he said.
The US Senate has approved a bill that would give Congress the power to review a nuclear agreement with Iran. The legislation gives Congress 30 days to review the agreement and prevents the White House from suspending sanctions during that time. The US, along with Iran and five other nations, have set a deadline of 30 June to finalize a deal. A framework for negotiations seeks to ease western sanctions in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme.
The good news is that a congressional no vote would not be binding and could be vetoed by President Barack Obama which would require a supermajority of two-thirds of both the House and Senate to overcome. President Obama will still be able to lift sanctions he himself imposed through executive action but he would be unable to ease those imposed by Congress.
However, if the bill becomes law it will delay President Obama from waiving sanctions. Congress gets 30 days to consider the agreement. If Congress passes a resolution of disapproval and the president vetoes it, he simply has to wait 10 more days to waive sanctions. There is the possibility that Congress can get the two thirds vote needed to override the veto but that is by no means certain.
The bill passed overwhelmingly in a 98-1 vote on 7 May 2015 . It is expected to pass next week in the House. President Obama has said he will sign the bill and is expected to do so after several amendments from Republican senators, which were blocked. He lifted a previous veto threat after the White House said it believed the measure would not “derail the negotiations”.
“Never underestimate the ability of Congress to wage political guerrilla warfare to stop the deal,” warns Paul Pillar, a former CIA officer who is now a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute.
President Obama hailed the framework as “historic”. If the deal goes through in the summer, it will be a landmark foreign policy achievement. If Congress kills this deal not based on expert analysis, and without offering any reasonable alternative,” he said after the agreement was announced, “then it’s the United States that will be blamed for the failure of diplomacy.”
Speaking in Luebeck, European Union foreign policy Chief Federica Mogherini said she is confident that U.S. government officials and lawmakers will understand the agreement is in the security interests of everyone in the region and the world. She also said it would be necessary to “do a good job” working out the details in the coming weeks on a final nuclear deal with Iran.
Republican senators had already filed amendments that the bill’s sponsors warn could jeopardize a rare bipartisan measure. These amendments include a requirement that Iran recognize Israel, link a deal to the release of American citizens detained in Iran, and require any final accord to be given the status of a treaty which would need approval by two thirds of the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t allow those amendments in order to maintain the bipartisan status of the bill.
The reality is that the debate over the nuclear deal with Iran represents a divide between the Obama Administration and the Republican-dominated US Congress (including many Democrats) who instead of urging a policy of continued sanctions, pressure or even military action as urged by Israeli PM Netanyahu. However, the real leverage in favor of a deal now is that the US’ European/NATO allies may no longer be prepared to continue with sanctions and certainly are not inclined toward any military response to Iran. Further, critical members of the UN Security Council as China or Russia certainly would not support continued sanctions but rather would seek to exploit such to drive a further wedge between the US, Europe and other evolving allies, such as India or Turkey for example.
Unfortunately, the Obama Administration knows that it has little ability to convince the majority of the US Congress of the wisdom of reaching a deal with Iran instead of some alternative that may include everything from disengagement to military confrontation. However, the Obama team, including US Secretary of State John Kerry who is responsible for the continued talks, know that the US Congress may find it more difficult to reject US Allies, or at least the NATO and EU allies. This may turn into a blame game before US allies, the UN, and US voters.
In addition to the majority of Republicans as well as some members of his own party, President Obama is facing toughest opposition for the deal from Israel. No doubt Israel is seen as the most influential US ally, and the current Israeli Government of PM Netanyahu has taken its opposition directly to the US Congress, going around and some might say above the appeal and word of the US President. Obama may take some satisfaction in implicitly placing the US Congress in a choice between US traditional European/NATO allies or PM Netanyahu. In announcing the general framework or initial understanding, the US President did not shy away from challenging senators from facing this choice. It also may be no coincidence that PM Netanyahu, along with Hamas, is at least at risk in facing an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation as Palestine was finally admitted to the global Court which is largely led by European states and US allies although neither Israel, nor the US or Iran, China and Russia are members.
It is ironic that the greatest opponents to the “deal” are Iranian hardliners who see an evolution, if not revolution, that will erode their rhetoric and authority, along with PM Netanyahu and his supporters in the US Congress. The Washington lobby group “J-Street” which defines itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace has also maintained an open, even optimistic view of the potential versus risks of a nuclear deal. On the other hand, PM Netanyahu has less credibility in calling for Tehran to recognize Israel after refuting earlier agreements on the “Two State Solution” and the full establishment of a Palestinian State.
Additionally, contrary to PM Netanyahu’s rhetoric, the history of Persia is as friend of the Jewish people, most notable the deliverance by Cyrus the Great from Babylonian enslavement to the long tradition of tolerance and flourishing in Islamic Iran, at least prior to very recent times under the Mullahs. Can it be asked whether PM Netanyahu has stoked confrontation with Iran as means to deflect from his own failures to embrace a genuine peace process with the Palestinians, again an agenda he has shared with Hamas and Palestinian and Arab rejectionists of Israel?
J-Street and other pro-Israel and pro-peace organizations see the current situation unsustainable which has been too frequently stoked by the instigation of conflict, pain, death, fear and mistrust by the extremes on all sides. Israel’s own covert nuclear program has also not provided for it to have a direct role in outlining measures that could apply to itself as well as Tehran — Israel has not accepted International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)inspection or transparency regarding its own considerably more advanced nuclear program and nuclear weapons developed covertly.
Israeli officials have denounced the preliminary agreement recently reached between world powers and Iran; Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called it a “dream deal for Iran and a nightmare deal for the world”. In interviews, some Iranian Jews echoed those sentiments, saying they felt that Iran couldn’t be trusted to keep its end of the bargain.
There are 140,000 Jews of Iranian descent in Israel, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, a population that dwarfs the 30,000 or fewer Jews who remain in Iran. Iranian Jews are prominent in Israeli public life: Rita, one of the country’s most famous singers, was born in Iran, as was former Israeli president Moshe Katsav.
Despite leading their lives in Israel, many families of Iranian origin speak Persian and celebrate Iranian holidays. While most cannot visit Iran anymore, they often keep in close contact with relatives who stayed behind with regular phone calls or, fearful of surveillance, by using messaging apps like WhatsApp or Facebook. “Historically, most Iranian Jews have voted for the Likud in the past 30 years, so they are not likely to dispute Netanyahu’s position,” Litvak said, referring to the prime minister’s political party.
It is ironic that PM Netanyahu along with his Republican friends never stopped criticizing the nuclear deal with Iran and disagreeing with President Obama with the focus to sabotage the deal while his country is known around the world for using every trick in the book to acquire nuclear technology for building bombs.
The tale serves as a historical counterpoint to today’s drawn-out struggle over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The parallels are not exact – Israel, unlike Iran, never signed up to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) so could not violate it. But it almost certainly broke a treaty banning nuclear tests, as well as countless national and international laws restricting the traffic in nuclear materials and technology.
The list of nations that secretly sold Israel the material and expertise to make nuclear warheads, or who turned a blind eye to its theft, include today’s staunchest campaigners against proliferation: the US, France, Germany, Britain and even Norway.
Meanwhile, Israeli agents charged with buying fissile material and state-of-the-art technology found their way into some of the most sensitive industrial establishments in the world. This daring and remarkably successful spy ring, known as Lakam, the Hebrew acronym for the innocuous-sounding Science Liaison Bureau, included such colourful figures as Arnon Milchan, a billionaire Hollywood producer behind such hits as Pretty Woman, LA Confidential and 12 Years a Slave, who finally admitted his role last month.
Israel has not confirmed that it has nuclear weapons and officially maintains that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. Yet the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons is a “Public Secret” by now due to the declassification of large numbers of formerly highly classified US government documents which show that the United States by 1975 was convinced that Israel had nuclear weapons.
The actual size and composition of Israel’s nuclear stockpile is uncertain and the subject of many – often conflicting – estimates and reports. It is widely reported that Israel had two bombs in 1967, and that Prime Minister Eshkol ordered them armed in Israel’s first nuclear alert during the Six-Day War. It is also reported that, fearing defeat in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Israelis assembled 13 twenty-kiloton atomic bombs.
Israel could potentially have produced a few dozen nuclear warheads in the period 1970-1980, and is thought to have produced sufficient fissile material to build 100 to 200 warheads by the mid-1990s. In 1986 descriptions and photographs of Israeli nuclear warheads were published in the London Sunday Times of a purported underground bomb factory at the Dimona nuclear reactor. The photographs were taken by Mordechai Vanunu, a dismissed Israeli nuclear technician. His information led some experts to conclude that Israel had a stockpile of 100 to 200 nuclear devices at that time.
By the late 1990s the US Intelligence Community estimated that Israel possessed between 75-130 weapons, based on production estimates. The stockpile would certainly include warheads for mobile Jericho-1 and Jericho-2 missiles, as well as bombs for Israeli aircraft, and may include other tactical nuclear weapons of various types. Some published estimates even claimed that Israel might have as many as 400 nuclear weapons by the late 1990s. These numbers are exaggerated, and that Israel’s nuclear weapons inventory may include less than 100 nuclear weapons. Stockpiled plutonium could be used to build additional weapons if so decided.
Here is how they accomplished their major objectives of acquiring nuclear technology for building bombs.
For reactor design and construction, Israel sought the assistance of France. Nuclear cooperation between the two nations dates back as far as early 1950’s, when construction began on France’s 40 MWt heavy water reactor and a chemical reprocessing plant at Marcoule. France was a natural partner for Israel and both governments saw an independent nuclear option as a means by which they could maintain a degree of autonomy in the bipolar environment of the cold war.
On 3 October 1957, France and Israel signed a revised agreement calling for France to build a 24 MWt reactor (although the cooling systems and waste facilities were designed to handle three times that power) and, in protocols that were not committed to paper, a chemical reprocessing plant. This complex was constructed in secret, and outside the IAEA inspection regime, by French and Israeli technicians at Dimona, in the Negev desert under the leadership of Col. Manes Pratt of the IDF Ordinance Corps.
Both the scale of the project and the secrecy involved made the construction of Dimona a massive undertaking. A new intelligence agency, the Office of Science Liasons (LEKEM) was created to provide security and intelligence for the project. At the height construction, some 1,500 Israelis some French workers were employed building Dimona. To maintain secrecy, French customs officials were told that the largest of the reactor components, such as the reactor tank, were part of a desalinization plant bound for Latin America. In addition, after buying heavy water from Norway on the condition that it not be transferred to a third country, the French Air Force secretly flew as much as four tons of the substance to Israel.
Trouble arose in May 1960, when France began to pressure Israel to make the project public and to submit to international inspections of the site, threatening to withhold the reactor fuel unless they did. President de Gaulle was concerned that the inevitable scandal following any revelations about French assistance with the project, especially the chemical reprocessing plant, would have negative repercussions for France’s international position, already on shaky ground because of its war in Algeria.
At a subsequent meeting with Ben-Gurion, de Gaulle offered to sell Israel fighter aircraft in exchange for stopping work on the reprocessing plant, and came away from the meeting convinced that the matter was closed. It was not. Over the next few months, Israel worked out a compromise. France would supply the uranium and components already placed on order and would not insist on international inspections. In return, Israel would assure France that they had no intention of making atomic weapons, would not reprocess any plutonium, and would reveal the existence of the reactor, which would be completed without French assistance. In reality, not much changed – French contractors finished work on the reactor and reprocessing plant, uranium fuel was delivered and the reactor went critical in 1964.
The United States first became aware of Dimona’s existence after U-2 overflights in 1958 captured the facility’s construction, but it was not identified as a nuclear site until two years later. The complex was variously explained as a textile plant, an agricultural station, and a metallurgical research facility, until David Ben-Gurion stated in December 1960 that Dimona complex was a nuclear research center built for “Peaceful Purposes.”
There followed two decades in which the United States, through a combination of benign neglect, erroneous analysis, and successful Israeli deception, failed to discern first the details of Israel’s nuclear program. As early as 8 December 1960, the CIA issued a report outlining Dimona’s implications for nuclear proliferation, and the CIA station in Tel Aviv had determined by the mid-1960s that the Israeli nuclear weapons program was an established and irreversible fact.
United States inspectors visited Dimona seven times during the 1960s, but they were unable to obtain an accurate picture of the activities carried out there, largely due to tight Israeli control over the timing and agenda of the visits. The Israelis went so far as to install false control room panels and to brick over elevators and hallways that accessed certain areas of the facility. The inspectors were able to report that there was no clear scientific research or civilian nuclear power program justifying such a large reactor – circumstantial evidence of the Israeli bomb program – but found no evidence of “weapons related activities” such as the existence of a plutonium reprocessing plant.
Although the United States government did not encourage or approve of the Israeli nuclear program, it also did nothing to stop it. Walworth Barbour, US ambassador to Israel from 1961-73, the bomb program’s crucial years, primarily saw his job as being to insulate the President from facts which might compel him to act on the nuclear issue, allegedly saying at one point that “The President did not send me there to give him problems. He does not want to be told any bad news.” After the 1967 war, Barbour even put a stop to military attach’s’ intelligence collection efforts around Dimona. Even when Barbour did authorize forwarding information, as he did in 1966 when embassy staff learned that Israel was beginning to put nuclear warheads in missiles, the message seemed to disappear into the bureaucracy and was never acted upon.
In early 1968, the CIA issued a report concluding that Israel had successfully started production of nuclear weapons. This estimate, however, was based on an informal conversation between Carl Duckett, head of the CIA’s Office of Science and Technology, and Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb. Teller said that, based on conversations with friends in the Israeli scientific and defense establishment, he had concluded that Israel was capable of building the bomb, and that the CIA should not wait for an Israeli test to make a final assessment because that test would never be carried out.
CIA estimates of the Israeli arsenal’s size did not improve with time. In 1974, Duckett estimated that Israel had between ten and twenty nuclear weapons. The upper bound was derived from CIA speculation regarding the number of possible Israeli targets, and not from any specific intelligence. Because this target list was presumed to be relatively static, this remained the official American estimate until the early 1980s.
The Dimona nuclear reactor is the source of plutonium for Israeli nuclear weapons. The number of nuclear weapons that could have been produced by Israel has generally been estimated on the basis of assumptions about the power level of this reactor, combined with estimates for the number of delivery vehicles (aircraft, missiles) assigned a nuclear mission.
Information made public in 1986 by Mordechai Vanunu indicated that at that time, weapons grade plutonium was being produced at a rate of about 40 kilograms annually. If this figure corresponded with the steady-state capacity of the entire Dimona facility, analysts suggested that the reactor might have a power level of at least 150 megawatts, about twice the power level at which it was believed to be operating around 1970. To accommodate this higher power level, analysts had suggested that Israel had constructed an enlarged cooling system. An alternative interpretation of the information supplied by Vanunu was that the reactor’s power level had remained at about 75 megawatts, and that the production rate of plutonium in the early 1980s reflected a backlog of previously generated material.
Unfortunately, western governments have played along with the policy of “opacity” by avoiding all mention of the issue. In 2009, when a veteran Washington reporter, Helen Thomas, asked Barack Obama in the first month of his presidency if he knew of any country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons, he dodged the trapdoor by saying only that he did not wish to “speculate”.
UK governments have generally followed suit. Asked in the House of Lords in November about Israeli nuclear weapons, Baroness Warsi answered tangentially. “Israel has not declared a nuclear weapons programme. We have regular discussions with the government of Israel on a range of nuclear-related issues,” the minister said. “The government of Israel is in no doubt as to our views. We encourage Israel to become a state party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
- BBC News – US Senate passes Iran Agreement Review Bill;
- BBC News – Countdown to Iran Nuclear Deal –But Resistance Remains;
- The World Post – Iran Nuclear Deal Pits US Congress versus US Allies;
- The Guardian – Iran Nuclear Deal;
- The Guardian – Israel’s Iranian Jews Worry about Nuclear Deal;
- The Guardian – The truth about Israel’s secret nuclear arsenal:
- The Guardian – Arnon Michan reveals past as Israeli spy;
- FAS – Weapons of Mass Destruction – Nuclear Weapons; and
- Israel and Palestine – Questions.